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'If a suitable policy doesn't exist, you're implying there is no place for mothers in your team'

By Lucy Lomax
Deborah Wills during a match at the HSBC Paris Sevens, stage of the Rugby Sevens World Series at Stade Jean Bouin, Paris, France.

Female athletes having children during their sporting careers is becoming more and more commonplace, especially in sports such as athletics, however, rugby still sees relatively few mothers on the pitch.

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Unlike football’s Women’s Super League, the Premier 15s does not yet have a formal league-wide maternity policy and is done on a club-by-club basis. Unsurprisingly, the number of mothers in the Premier 15s is few and far between.

One such player who returned to the field a remarkable 17 weeks after giving birth is Deborah Wills (née Fleming). The former England Sevens player with over 100 appearances, gives her perspective on deciding to have a baby mid-career to returning postpartum and why other players should know it’s an option.

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“When England Sevens disbanded during Covid it was a chance to spend time with my husband when I wasn’t travelling on the World Series,” said the 31-year-old.

“For me personally I enjoyed that time, living a slower pace of life and being with my family. That made us start the conversation of having a baby but with the postponement of the Olympics, my focus turned back to making the Team GB squad and going to Tokyo.

“When the Olympics was over, I personally felt like I’d done everything child-Deborah had set out to do. I was an Olympian, I’d been to a Commonwealth Games and thought now was the perfect time to try and if I never returned to the field I’d not have any resentment.

“I also felt that if I continued training and attempting to make the squad for Paris 2024, squad selection can be very intense and subjective and changes with different coaches. I was scared of jumping back on the crazy roller-coaster and in 2024 not getting selected and looking back on the last three years and again being regretful that I’d given up those years of possibly having a child. Fertility is also such an unknown, are you going to be able to conceive, will it take years, or will we struggle and need to have additional help?”

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The planning behind having a baby, conceiving in a specific time frame and taking time out of the game are all challenges to contend with for sportswomen, as written about by former England forward Shaunagh Brown who recently retired from the game.

For Wills and her husband, the journey began in September 2021.

“I knew I was pregnant very early, probably in the first two weeks as soon as I missed my period. I called Jo Yapp (Worcester Warriors Head Coach) and told her. I said I wanted to step back from the squad and enjoy some privacy. I wanted to step back without the excess noise and control the narrative, so I asked Jo to say to other players that I had decided to rehab.

“I then decided to do as much research as I could around training and pregnancy. I wrote all my own programmes for pregnancy and postpartum and returned myself back to full fitness.

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“I’m qualified in personal training and have had a lot of S&C training throughout my career. I was still running on rugby pitches at 28 weeks and doing repeated tempo runs. The joy of pregnancy is, no one can tell you when you need to stop, you have to listen to your body and you will just know. At the session at 28 weeks, I looked down the rugby pitch and I remember thinking ‘this is it, my core can’t take this anymore’ so I switched to doing cardio stuff on the cross trainer with weights and my last training session was two days before I gave birth.”

Wills was back running by week four of her postpartum journey and returned to Worcester only two weeks later to complete pre-season. After spending time away from running into people and used to having a bump, building into contact sessions was important.

“I hadn’t been vocal at the club about being pregnant or having a baby, to some of the girls I was just a player who had rocked up at the beginning of a new season. In one of my first sessions back we were doing a one-on-one bag hit drill and you were meant to drop and touch the players hips and one player dropped her shoulder into my stomach and I was like ‘oh ok’ and it just felt so weird, we laugh about it now! I just felt different around the pelvis area when everything was still settling. I was back doing full contact at 11-weeks.

“My first game back was in the Allianz Cup against Exeter and I ended up playing 80 minutes! It was a hot day and I was blowing but loved it! I’ve been very fortunate with the players and support staff being so patient with me and understanding that I was coming to training tired as you don’t sleep at night and having to breast pump around the players and coaches.

“With breast feeding I had to be really organised. I bought an electric pump and I’d pump in the car as soon as I got to training or go to a free room and then as soon as the sessions were over I’d start pumping again, as well as in some team meetings. The girls have just been so supportive.”

With mothers at the higher levels of the sport still scarce, Wills is keen to share her story and give advice.

“My advice to any female athletes considering having a baby at any point in their career is you have to do what makes you happy and what’s best for your family. We play sport for such a short period of our lives and now the beauty of it is there’s so many athletes from different sports around the world who are returning post-baby, so it is something that is possible.”

Role models also play an important part in showing female players that you don’t have to wait until your career is over. Wills lists Australia sevens players Alicia Lucas and Emilee Cherry as her inspiration for the timing of having a baby and returning to the field, alongside Annette Bevan who plays for Abbey RFC women and started an Instagram page @postpartumrugbymum dedicated to documenting her journey back to the field after childbirth in an honest and open way, creating a support network for others doing the same.

“These women have shown that it is possible and not only that, but you can come back to the same level and higher. In the last ten years there are examples of women that are changing the story for future athletes who decide to have babies, because there is so much more than having the child and spending time away, it’s contractual agreements with sponsors and national governing bodies, with the teams you’re affiliated with and being able to make a living and then there’s the performance side, so it’s really important to take that into consideration when planning your babies.

“If a suitable maternity policy does not exist, without openly saying it, you’re implying that there is no place for mothers in your team or organisation.”

Wills believes that the more women who decide to return after having a baby, the stronger the argument for policies which are suited to female athletes within all contracts and not a copy and paste policy, replicating your average desk worker.

“The contracts need to be performance based for an athlete which has their return in mind, and I also think it’s important to remind women that it is still their shirt to come back to and they haven’t lost it. It’s all about recognising that they’re rugby players and the demands of our jobs.

“When there is a maternity policy in place, not only does it provide safety and security, but it also makes having a baby mid-career more normal and less taboo, and that’s what we want to see.”

Current England 15s players who are on fixed term contracts with the RFU do not have bespoke maternity policies and are entitled to the same leave and statutory pay as a female RFU employee.

An updated England Women policy is due to be released at the end of January/early February this year, with Wills involved in the process through the RPA representation group.

The RFU has said it will work with Premier 15s clubs moving forward to share good practice and support in developing their own policies and strategies moving forwards.

“I’m proud to say I was a part of the new policy for elite female rugby players in England. If this shifts the momentum of these women taking time out to have a baby in the coming years, it’ll be very interesting to see.”

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